Prince of Shadows

9,248
05.03.2019

He was just as I remembered him now. Fire and beauty, passion and wit, love and longing. All his fineness and all his awful tragedy bound up together.

“You are my friend,” I told him, and I felt the grief and heartbreak of it. “I should have helped you. I should have saved him. You are right to hate me, but for the love of God, for the love of Tomasso, spare her your hate. She deserves none of it.”

His pale shade gazed at me, and just for a moment, I saw a smile curve his lips. He bent forward, and I felt his hand close over mine.

The rosary loosened its grip, but not enough, and I saw the regret and sorrow on his ghostly face. He could not stop it in death any more than he could in life.

There was only one thing I could do, and I did not pause to think. I dared not.

I thrust my whole hand into the flames.

The agony hit in an instant, but I held; I held, though I heard my cry go up to echo from the walls. My sleeve caught fire, and I heard flesh sizzle.

Mercutio’s ghost wept.

My whole body shook, and I knew that I would die if I did not pull my hand back.

Better dead, I thought with absolute, cold clarity. Better it ends here, with me, and she might live.

Perhaps it was that release of my own selfish desire to live that caused the rosary to finally let go its grip on my fingers and slip away to drop into the flames.

I drew my poor hand back and batted out the flames on my sleeve as I collapsed to the floor beside Juliet’s perished nurse. I felt that same hell-borne heat of my grandmother’s rooms pressing on me, through me, as if it meant to ignite me from bones out. . . .

And then I felt it turn to ashes and dust, and all the terrible weight of it fled under the press of cool, still air.

The burning in my hand was gone. I turned my head and looked into the fire, and saw the rosary blackening, cracking apart, falling to ruins.

I lifted my hand and slowly clenched and unclenched the unburned flesh, the unscarred fingers. Then I looked at Mercutio’s shade, which still stood looking down on me.

And he smiled. It was the smile of my old friend, the smile of delight and mischief and glory. His lips shaped words, and I read them as if they were written on the air between us.

Love well, if not wisely.

And then he was gone.

I closed my eyes and struggled not to weep: for love of my friend, and for the loss of him, and Romeo, and innocents Juliet and Tomasso, and yes, even my sister, who in no way had been guiltless. For all of them, swept away on a senseless tide of grief.

Then I rose, wiped my face, and reached for the bedroom’s locked door.

It shuddered against my hand, leaping against the lock, and I realized that, incredibly, the world in some ways had not changed. I was a Montague, intruding in a Capulet’s rooms, with a woman lying dead beside me. There would be no quarter for me here. The door would give in one more blow, and I’d be taken and ripped apart out of their blind fury.

I ran to the balcony. Juliet’s balcony, from which she’d listened so ardently to my cousin’s declarations of love, and perhaps it had been love after all, true and wrongheaded, at least in the beginning, before the curse took its hold of them. Beneath, the garden was hushed and still, and only the fountain’s gentle whisper stirred it.

The door splintered behind me with sudden violence.

I knew I could still win my way free. I jumped up to the balustrade, balancing there; it was an easy jump to soft ground, and a wall I’d climbed more often than I ought to ever confess. An easy escape in the confusion.

But I didn’t want to escape.

I jumped for Rosaline’s balcony instead.

It was a long way, and a standing jump instead of a running one, and even though I stretched as far as I could, my fingers only grazed the stone railing, and I knew I’d fall. . . .

But something bore me up, just for a moment, and carried me those last vital inches, so that my hand wrapped around one of the stone braces beneath and stopped me, and when I looked down, I saw a shade there, limned cold in the moonlight as it broke through the clouds.

My beloved cousin Romeo. Only a last, wavering image of him, shivering like an illusion of heat.

His lips moved, though I heard no voice, and then he smiled, and where he had floated there was only mist rising into the night.

I scrambled up, vaulted over the balcony railing, and found the shutters closed. Shouting from within Juliet’s room told me the servants had uncovered the nurse’s body, and I quickly slipped my dagger between the wooden leaves of the shutters and raised the latch, and then I was inside Rosaline’s apartment.

She was at the door, threading the key into the lock with shaking hands, and she whirled as the fresh breeze blew in to flap the curtains around me. The candle on the table guttered, but did not quite go out.

I stayed where I was, and she where she was, as if we tested ourselves.

“I feel . . .” She swallowed, and hugged herself hard. “I feel cold. And very . . . very alone.”

I knew that. I felt the desolation, too, the sadness, but I knew that it was only the aftermath of that awful flame that had been lit between us; a passion like that, flaming so fast, could only scorch, not warm.

So I crossed the space between us and put my arms around her, and after a long heartbeat’s pause, she sank against me, and rested her head upon my shoulder, and sighed a little in utter relief.

“What do you feel?” she asked me, in a quiet, muffled tone. She did not raise her head to meet my gaze.

“Grief,” I said, and stroked her hair. “But grief passes.”

“And the two of us, will we also pass?” She was crying, but it was a silent thing; I felt the damp heat of her tears through my shirtsleeve, but she made no sound to betray it.

“No,” I said, and she lifted her head then, eyes shimmering and wet, and lips parted. “I saw Mercutio’s ghost a moment ago. And he spoke to me.”

“What did he say?”

“He said, ‘Love well, if not wisely,’” I said. “And I love you well, Capulet.”

Then I kissed her, and tasted tears and flowers, fear and hope, dread and dreams. Her lips were as soft and warm as the petals of a sun-heated rose, and something rose within me, a thing of fire and feathers, spreading wide wings. This was not wise, it was not politic, it was not sane, and yet I no longer cared for anything but the way she trembled when I touched her, and pressed so close to me. Not a curse, this feeling. A blessing.

Her lips held the sweetest and most intoxicating brew in the world, and I drank, and drank, and drank until I was dizzy with it, and her.

And so they found us, when they broke down the door, lost in that embrace.

• • •

I had been to Castelvecchio only twice in my life—once to be presented to Prince Escalus when I was only six years old, clumsy and fat in my finery, and once when I accompanied my cousin and uncle there for a feast.

This time, I was marched through the long, narrowing series of halls and doors, and the straight line of smaller and smaller arched doorways seemed as if I were being swallowed up by a giant beast of marble, stone, and plaster. Fine works of art glared at me from the walls, as if angered by the clatter of my passing—the jingle of my guards’ swords and armor. I walked silently, and unarmed by so much as a dagger. Even my hands were firmly tied.

Following along at a distance came the Capulet family—the great man and his lady, and a heavily veiled and guarded Rosaline behind them. Somewhere in the distance, perhaps, my uncle might arrive, but by the weak, fragile light of this day, I was not sure he had the stomach for more grief.

I resigned myself that this trial would be mine alone. Oh, Mercutio, is this your last laugh? Am I your final victim? It might be both.

I felt weary, dirty, and hungry; they’d let me quench my thirst, but I still wore the clothes in which I’d been taken, and the apple I’d downed many hours ago had long since ceased to keep body and soul together. My head ached dully.

And oddly, I had never felt quite so fine in my life.

“I don’t understand you,” said the guard at my right elbow; he was a talkative, amusing fellow, while the one at my left was as taciturn as a stone. “Throwing away your life for a woman. You know the prince will exile you for this, on the Capulets’ bitter complaints; he will not be disposed to aggravate their grief just now. And yet you smile!”

“I do,” I agreed.

“Why?”

“Because I am happy.”

He shook his head, and the chain mail lapping his neck made a slithering hiss, like a serpent preparing to strike. “Fools are happy, young sir. Wise men are always sad.”

“Pray God I am never stricken with wisdom, then,” I said. “The happiest men I ever knew were followers of folly. It was only when they were stopped from it that their lives turned grim.”

“Men were not made to be happy,” he said, my philosophical guard. “Men were made to suffer and be made ready for the happiness of heaven.”

“A harsh sentence for the crime of birth.”

He shrugged. “Life is not fair, young sir; if it were, I’d be swimming in gold and ale.”

“You already swim in ale,” said his less talkative companion, in a repressive rumble of a voice. “Quiet. I’ll not take your lumps for you.”

That must have been an effective warning, because we passed through the last two halls in silence. Servants stood off, watching as they cleaned; courtiers stopped their hushed conversations to turn and watch my progress.

And then we passed the final arched doorway into a large, square room floored in marble, with a single heavily carved chair upon a dais at the end of it. Prince Escalus was not in the chair; instead, he was standing at its foot, listening to an aged priest bending under the weight of his robes, and as we clanked to a halt ten feet from him, he nodded a dismissal to the man and straightened to regard me.

He looked tired, our prince; he’d had little enough sleep, and I could well imagine governing such an unruly city would take its toll on him. He still stood tall and strong, though, and he stared at me a moment before he turned with a swirl of his half cloak, climbed the steps, and settled himself in the throne.